As we confront these dangerous times and attempt to deal with our current state of anxiety, the haunting words of the classic spiritual Whispering Hope and the soothing voice of Willie Nelson come to mind:

Wait, till the darkness is over
Wait, till the tempest is done
Hope, for the sunshine tomorrow
After the darkness is gone.

Luckovich, Atlanta Journal Constitution

In sorting through this, the Chinese appear to be ahead of us in getting to the reflective stage. An AP story with a Wuhan dateline offered a preview of where this country might be in a few months as we pause to think about our experience with the current pandemic:

With air raid sirens wailing and flags at half-staff, China held a three-minute nationwide moment of reflection on Saturday to honor those who have died in the coronavirus outbreak, especially “martyrs” who fell while fighting what has become a global pandemic.

At a time when dead Americans in body bags swamped morgues in some cities, we are all too busy dealing with the here and now to think about anything else. And with unemployment rates skyrocketing and Americans losing their employment-based healthcare, dealing with the here and now doesn’t allow for any reflective exercise yet, only the need to survive.

With the pandemic, there’s a challenge faced in millions of households as parents are thrust into the world of homeschooling or, more accurately, home education. Moreover, homebound children – a term once used to describe the education of those who were not able to attend school for medical or physical reasons – now might also refer to restless kids isolated from friends and their their regular teachers.

Can you imagine being an educator and sharing a day or an entire professional career with a restless roomful of kids whose minds tend to be somewhere other than front and center? A lot of parents are now being educated about what the world of an educator is like.

As we deal with these and other profound changes and the continuing upheaval in our society, where the new normal itself is in flux, there are a few core areas of our existence that in all likelihood will be the subject of reflection, just like they were in Wuhan recently. And when Americans begin to start thinking about what they have learned as a result of this pandemic, it would be nice to see folks gather soon on their porches and decks to think deeply about some basic learnings. It is then that we can reflect on what should be different in the future, or as we  now call it, the new normal.

For starters, here are several areas that might provide opportunities for reflection, after the darkness is over.

Healthcare

Millions of people have been laid off in this country during the last month as the economy has collapsed. With the number of unemployment applications surging, it is anyone’s guess as to how many Americans have lost their healthcare coverage. According to one survey conducted before the pandemic, in a nation of 330 million people, 11.7% of our fellow citizens didn’t have healthcare coverage. The pandemic will add tens of millions to the rolls of those without medical coverage. And with 22 million new jobless claims, many of our fellow citizens will soon reflect about why healthcare is tied to employment in this country, when in many industrialized countries it is a right that comes with citizenship.

The United Kingdom is a case in point. During Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s recent illness, television images showed the symbol for the National Health Service on the exterior of St. Thomas’ Hospital, where the PM was a patient recovering from COVID-19. Many experts view the NHS, which was established as a single-payer system in 1948, as a model for healthcare in modern society.

With the United Kingdom’s NHS in mind, we might reflect on why we allow someone’s health insurance to end as a result of a business closing due to a pandemic, corporate downsizing, or bankruptcy, rather than a basic guarantee that is enjoyed by those in other industrialized countries.

Education

We are now heading into the second month of quarantine for the nation’s PK-12 students, where nearly 57 million young people have been displaced from their regular classrooms, and 3.5 million teachers are reinventing themselves to serve children in some unfamiliar and remote fashion. The upheaval that the coronavirus has caused to the nation’s system of education, both public and private, is incalculable.

More than 130,000 schools have been forced to close, and millions of children were left for a time without nutritious meals that schools supply to many needed children. School districts were forced to scramble in designing ways to deliver school breakfasts and lunches for the most vulnerable children in schools across the country.

There is little doubt that when schools reopen in the era of the new normal, funds for public education will be in even tighter supply. In particular, publicly funded but privately managed charter schools, along with private and religious schools, which siphon off scarce tax dollars in the form of vouchers, will need to be re-evaluated for their eligibility to receive depleted public funds. In a recent essay, The Coronavirus Just Might End School Privatization Nonsense, education historian Dr. Diane Ravitch offered this view:

Charters and vouchers divert badly needed funds from public schools. The competition for students and resources has meant that public schools have had to cut their budgets, lay off teachers, increase their class sizes, and eliminate electives. Most state legislatures have not been willing to increase the real dollars spent on education, and there is not enough money to fund two or three sectors. In the zero-sum game, students and teachers in regular public schools, which enroll between 80 and 90 percent of all students, suffer grievous harm.

When someday our schools reopen, we must renew our efforts to fund them so they are able to meet the needs of students and to pay teachers as professionals… But a fact that stands out from the past decade is this: A society that is unwilling to pay what it costs so that all children have a good education is sacrificing its future.

Soon, we will be at the point where we recognize and accept the new normal, when public funds are even scarcer due to tighter budgets driven by reduced tax revenues. We will then have to reflect about whether a proper public purpose is served by subsidizing for-profit charters and religious schools at the expense of locally controlled schools governed by democratically-elected board members. Those considerations are in addition to the serious Establishment Clause issues raised by providing those scarce public funds for private and religious purposes.

Science and the Environment

As Americans hunker down and attempt to deal with the disruptions caused by COVID-19, we are seeing increasingly violent storms wreak havoc on our continent. Recently, for example, a series of tornadoes killed 31 people in the South, with debris found more than 50 miles away. Certainly, reports of damaging spring storms aren’t news. One noticeable difference is the intensity that we are seeing, and that doesn’t bode well for the long-term health of the planet.

Many observers have taken note of what they see in the attitude about science, as evidenced by actions taken and not taken with climate change and COVID-19. Naomi Oreskes, a history of science professor at Harvard University, made this observation:

When we first heard about coronavirus, I and several of my colleagues worried that Trump would not attend to scientific advice. This is a man who has exhibited a reckless disregard for scientific evidence over climate change; if he could do that, there was always the question of whether he would take seriously any science.”

Oreskes sees Covid-19 as Trump’s ultimate challenge. Would he put the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans first, or would he dig into the tried-and-tested Republican playbook of showing hostility to science and expertise, reining in government intervention and prioritizing the money markets?

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

When we see stories about rapid beach erosion and increased flooding in coastal areas due to rising sea levels, particularly Florida’s east coast, along with an increase in violent weather, the subject of climate change and paying attention to science will be back in our conversation. It’s unfortunate that it took a worldwide pandemic for many of us to start thinking more seriously about the importance of applying scientific knowledge to national policy.

Voting

Americans were heartened to see long lines at the voting locations in Wisconsin two weeks ago in reaction to the refusal of the state’s legislature, affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court, to postpone the election in the midst of the Covid-19 crisis. Perhaps it was some of these same voters who didn’t show up last time. Just a week after the presidential election in 2016, a story in the Washington Post described the impact of no-shows in our democracy:

Roughly 43 percent of eligible voters didn’t bother filling out a ballot this year, according to turnout estimates from the U.S. Elections Project. To look at it another way, the people who could have voted but chose not to vastly outnumbered those who cast a vote for Clinton, Trump or a third-party candidate.

That means that 100 million people who have the legal right to vote simply decided it wasn’t worth the hassle this year. [2016]

If Woody Allen said that 80% of success in life is just showing up, Americans have failed in performing their civic duty by not participating in the process of self-governance. And if Americans believe that their government is failing in this time of crisis, there may be a connection between failing to show up and having failing government.

There is a solution, a learning from the COVID-19 experience demonstrated by those long voting lines in Wisconsin, that must be applied immediately by state legislatures, says Minnesota’s Senator Amy Klobuchar:

That is why we must reform our election systems, so that sheltering in place can also mean voting in place. And we must do it now, while we still have the time to preserve everyone’s ability to vote in November.

Try that argument in Texas, where the state’s attorney general is threatening felony prosecution of vote-by-mail advocates.

But beyond vote-by-mail is a larger, simpler belief, an affirmation of democracy that should also be embraced in light of our reflective period. In January 2016, Plundebund ran a five-part series entitled In Order To Form a More Perfect Union, which called for the ratification of new constitutional amendments as a Second Bill of Rights. Here is the first of those proposed amendments offered in that series:

Amendment 28. Voting as participation in the democratic process. The act of voting is essential to our republic through the participation of citizens who give their consent to be governed. Voting is therefore a fundamental right of citizenship and shall not be infringed by legislation, administrative action, or by methods that create barriers to citizen participation in self-governance.

Qualifications for President

Since I was a young child, I remember hearing comments that government and public schools should be run like a business. That tired refrain continued into my adulthood and carried over into my early years as a school administrator. I’ve lost track about the number of times business types on school district business advisory councils told me and other administrators that they knew more about running schools than we did, and that we should start applying business principles in our work.

Note that this was long before privately operated for-profit charter schools appeared about 20 years ago. And it was long before a Manhattan and Atlantic City real estate developer, someone who never served a day in the military, famously said that he knew more than the generals.

Which is where we are today.

The myth of the skilled, multi-talented business executive has been destroyed by Donald Trump. But, incredibly, he still has legions of apologists who excuse his incompetence in providing public sector leadership.

Plunderbund readers were warned three years ago about Trump’s dangerous lack of any type of government experience in assuming the top position in our national leadership.

No one expected a businessman to completely understand the nuances, the complicated ins and outs of Washington and its legislative process,” Jeanine Pirro, the firebrand Fox News commentator, said of Trump…

Really? No one expected a profoundly unqualified narcissist businessman and abusive individual with a history of bankruptcies and no government or military experience to understand the importance of collaboration and principled leadership as essential in governance?

Perhaps in the future we need to apply the Sam Rayburn rule. The long-time Speaker of the House had his ideas about leadership and government experience. When his protégé, Lyndon Johnson, told him about all of the brains and talent he observed in the newly assembled cabinet of John F. Kennedy, the Texas sage observed “I’d feel a lot better if some of them had run for sheriff just once.”

Even with all of his other behavioral issues and challenges, Donald Trump might have made a slightly better president if he at least started out running for school board. Or county commissioner. Maybe even for Senate.

I’m not sure, though, about him running for sheriff. After all, with him, it’s always the same. Unready. Fire. Aim.

Government

In his first inaugural address on January 20, 1981, Ronald Reagan set the tone for forty years of Republican attacks on government. Near the beginning of his speech, the Gipper famously said that

“In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”

There have been few utterances by other Republican leaders since then that have helped to better define the party’s preexisting disposition toward government than Reagan’s one-sentence observation. Reagan has been canonized by the extreme wings of the party for his call to arms to limit, downsize, even destroy the place of the public sector as a vehicle to ensure the public good.

Reagan’s call to arms was taken up most prominently by Grover Norquist, who started the Ronald Reagan Legacy Project in 1997 for the purpose of establishing some type of memorial to the late president in every county in the United States. Norquist is also famous for another organization he birthed, Americans for Tax Reform.

Recently, Dana Milbank of the Washington Post singled out Norquist for helping to foster the anti-government climate of the Republican Party.

But then came the tea party, the anti-government conservatism that infected the Republican Party in 2010 and triumphed with President Trump’s election. Perhaps the best articulation of its ideology came from the anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, who once said: “I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.”

They got their wish. What you see today is your government, drowning — a government that couldn’t produce a rudimentary test for coronavirus, that couldn’t contain the pandemic as other countries have done, that couldn’t produce enough ventilators for the sick or even enough face masks and gowns for health-care workers.

Now it is time to drown this disastrous philosophy in the bathtub — and with it the poisonous attitude that the government is a harmful “beast” that must be “starved.” It is not an exaggeration to say that this ideology caused the current debacle with a deliberate strategy to sabotage government. (Emphasis Mine)
____________

Conclusions – and Reflections

As we reflect deeply about the centrality of healthcare and education in our daily lives, we need to also realize the importance of how a healthy environment is ensured by a respect for science in government officials through the adoption of laws and regulations that recognize the fragility of life on our planet. It is fortunate that the present pandemic has brought the importance of science and the environment back into our consciousness.

Yet knowledge of and sensitivity to the importance of healthcare, education, science and the environment is tied to the importance of civic involvement. That means every adult citizen needs to take the time to study the issues confronting society and participate and vote in the electoral process. And when we take the time to become involved in self-governance, we become educated on the qualifications – or lack thereof – that a candidate might bring to an elected office.

Including, of course, the presidency.

Add all of these areas together for reflection in our present crisis – Healthcare, Education, Science and the Environment, Voting, and Qualifications for President – and we cycle back to our challenge amidst a long history of Republican sabotage, viz., Government and its purpose.

Today, we need broad-based, universal healthcare more than ever. We need great schools – great public schools not wounded by the siphoning off of public money for private purposes – to train our future generations of educators, healthcare professionals, and scientists among a knowledgeable and informed populace. In turn, that informed populace studies the issues, qualifications of candidates, and participates in the voting process.

The glue that brings all of this together is government. It is tragic that an international crisis has brought us to this point, but we have been provided an opportunity to tell the Grover Norquists – and Donald Trumps – of the world that a lack of healthcare, poor education, disrespect for science and the environment –  kills.

But that’s not all. The lack of voter participation in our governance process kills. Unqualified, incompetent people holding the highest office in the land kills. And an incompetent government, put in place by a minority of the voting citizens, also kills.

There is no doom and gloom offered in this time of reflection. We’re still in the short run now, but in the long run we can turn this around by dealing with the toxins that undermine our strength.

On that note, let’s pull up our sleeves not to wash our hands again but to throw Grover Norquist and the anti-government crowd into that fabled bath tub and drown his harmful ideas. We’ll all be healthier for doing so.

 

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